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Is Jimmy Wales a Credible Source on Wikipedia?

Monday, 24 Sep 2012 | 3:26 PM ET

Jimmy Wales is, as everyone knows, the founder of Wikipedia. If you don’t know this, you can look it up on Wikipedia’s entry for itself.

Jimmy Wales
Chris O'meara
Jimmy Wales

Whatever your thoughts on the accuracy of Wikipedia, it’s a pretty good bet that it correctly identifies its own founder.

Today at the Clinton Global Initiative, Wales was on a panel moderated by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The title of the session was “Champions of Action” — although, despite having sat through the entire 48 minutes of the panel — your guess is as good as mine why it was titled that.

In any case, one of the other panelists on stage with Wales and Albright was a woman named Tawakkol Karman. Or, at least, I think that’s her name. That’s what it says on the agenda for the CGI. But until this morning, Wikipedia had her listed under “Tawakel Karman.”

Jimmy Wales, whose Wikipedia’s username is Jimbo Wales, changed the spelling of her entry on Wikipedia this morning after Ms. Karman mentioned the misspelling to him on stage at the CGI.

“She is sitting here with me and says this is her preferred spelling,” Wales wrote in hisnote justifying the change. (More:A Wal-Mart for Libya)

This change, however, seems not to be in keeping with standard Wikipedia rules about reliably sourcing information. Wikipedia strives to have its assertions based on reliable, third-party, published sources. Ms. Karman’s testimony about the spelling of her name was not published anywhere — and neither was Wales account of it.

In short, under standard Wikipedia rules, someone should probably revert Ms. Karman’s entry back to the original spelling.

This is not just nit-picking. Over the years there have been countless times when a person actually involved directly with something covered by a Wikipedia article attempted to correct a factual error, only to be told by Wikipedia’s editors that their own first person accounts were not considered verifiable or reliable.

Most recently, for instance, Philip Roth attempted to have an article about his novel “The Human Stain” corrected. Here’s what happened, as Roth explained in an open letter to Wikipedia to The New Yorker.

I am Philip Roth. I had reason recently to read for the first time the Wikipedia entry discussing my novel “The Human Stain.” The entry contains a serious misstatement that I would like to ask to have removed. This item entered Wikipedia not from the world of truthfulness but from the babble of literary gossip — there is no truth in it at all.

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator — “but we require secondary sources.”

This is where things get weird. Roth’s letter in the New Yorker counts as a published secondary source, and his assertion is now included in the Wikipedia article about his novel. So Roth’s own assertion about the novel didn’t count — but his letter about his assertion did.

What about Jimmy Wales' claim? There’s no secondary-source for this. So by Wikipedia rules, it seems that his change should be reversed.

Or, at least, it should have been reversed. Because since Wales made his claim, a secondary source has emerged. The very item you are reading. (More:Romney and Obama Will Have a Close Call)

All of which reminds me of one of my favorite stories. Some time ago, there was a night club in Hollywood that lured customers with the gimmick that all the staffers were unknown actors imitating famous movie stars. As the story goes, Cary Grant was a friend of the owner and on some nights he would work the door. He rarely attracted much attention because no one, of course, believed he was the real Cary Grant. It's said that this was one of the only places the actor could go out in public and not be noticed.

One night, however, an very-nearly famous imitator of Grant came to the nightclub. The imitator made a living at parties and such doing impressions of Grant and had heard he had a rival at the nightclub. He came to the door of the place doing his imitation, then judged Grant's response. It is reported by those who know this story that the imitator concluded that Cary Grant was a very poor imitation of Cary Grant.

Incidentally, when Grant was asked about the imitator, he's said to have replied, "Well, one of us stinks."

Something like this infinite regress, which is to say a version of infinity, was on display at CGI Monday. And since infinity is another word for eternity, it's fair to say we glimpsed the Eternal at the conference today.

- by CNBC senior editor John Carney

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